Dan Barna: Save Romania Union similar to Macron’s En Marche

Dan Barna in Brussels on 20 February 2018. [Georgi Gotev]

Dan Barna, President of Save Romania Union (USR), told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview that his force, which largely represents educated urban voters, could join the European political family of Emmanuel Macron’s La République En Marche! party.

Last October Dan Barna was elected leader of USR, the political force founded following the success of the Save Bucharest Union party in the 2016 local elections. It is currently the third largest political party in Romania after the 2016 legislative elections, in which it obtained 8,87% of the vote. USR has a lot of support in big cities and among Romanians protesting the ruling party’s judicial reforms.

Can I ask you to introduce yourself and the political force you represent?

I’m the president of Save Romania Union, the third party in Romania. It’s a grassroots party, it was established only one and a half years ago, and now in the political landscape the most pro-European, pro-state of law and modern political party.

Almost all our members are professionals, never involved in politics before. It’s a party coming from society. We have been quite active in the protests, fighting against the assault on justice the majority in parliament is conducting this year, because their leader, Mr Dragnea, is expected to be convicted so they are trying very hard to change the law.

The Romania diaspora is also very supportive of USR?

Yes, we succeeded in obtaining the best results in the diaspora and among the most developed parts of Romania, the places where educated people are most present.

You were a successful businessman, then you accepted a ministerial post in the cabinet of Prime Minister Dacian Cioloş. Why did you decide to go into politics?

It was quite a funny story. I was in a consultancy company dealing with structural funds. I succeeded in developing, with one of my colleagues, a web portal structuralfunds.ro, and because of this success, let’s call it like that, the Prime Minister Dacian Cioloş called me in 2016 to be part of his short-term government as a technocrat, and I was Secretary of State for the European funds ministry. For six months I worked very hard to improve Romania’s absorption of European funds.

Accepting to work for the government was a big challenge for me. I lost three kilos wondering if I should get rid of my comfortable life as an entrepreneur and start working for the government. I decided to give it a try, and at the end of the six months I had to decide again: shall I return to business or enter politics, by becoming a candidate for USR, which was at that time a fresh new party, coming from the civil society.

But I always thought it’s better to regret that you tried, instead if regretting you didn’t try. This is how I ended up being a member of the parliament.

Do you think your political force is part of the same phenomenon as Macron’s En Marche?

Yes, Save Romania Union is exactly the same kind of movement. Even this month we have a program in Romania called “USR – It’s your voice”. The citizens are questioned on the street, they are completing forms answering what the priorities of the country should be, we are using the same approach as Macron and En Marche have done in France.

But there is a small difference, in En Marche the members are former members of other parties. USR started with the idea of involving mainly people who have never done politics before. We have criteria not to have as members people who have been on management positions in other parties, and members of other parties are accepted only after periods of just supporting the party.

This is a safeguard against your party being hijacked?

Exactly, this is a safeguard against the party being hijacked by professionals. As we speak we are still learning politics, sometimes we make mistakes. In terms of human capital, the quality of our party is much better than others. But in terms of experience in politics, we are young, it’s true.

You are strong in the cities but not in the countryside. Is this a big problem?

It’s true, we are very strong in the biggest cities in Romania, in Bucarest, in Timișoara, in Sibiu, in Brasov, in Cluj, these are the biggest cities. But in the rural areas we do struggle to identify the right messages and have success there because the social democrats who govern Romania now are harvesting the rural area votes because they are providing social help there.

The next elections in which Romanians will vote are the European elections. This probably means that you will need to decide which European political family you will join. I don’t think you have made your choice yet?

We didn’t, we are in the process of taking this decision. In terms of values, we are closest to the ALDE group. Because in terms of economics we are centre-right, in terms of social policy and human rights we are the centre, and generally we are centre-right.

But in Romania, there is a party called ALDE, led by former PM Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu and I don’t think you like the idea of being associated with them?

Indeed, and this Romanian party is really a corrupted one, they are governing together with the socialists and for us to state that we are part of ALDE (as a European political group) would be awfully difficult to explain – “look, we are part of ALDE, but not the Romanian ALDE, there is another ALDE which is a better one”. It would be difficult.

ALDE Europe are perfectly aware of the problem they have with Mr Tăriceanu, but they say there is no precedent of kicking out a member of the group.  And they know that ALDE Romania is a corrupted pro-socialist party.

Macron has the same problem – they have not decided which political family to join. Maybe they will have their own group and then maybe you will join…

This could be a solution for us, maybe Macron will join ALDE, and the group will have another name, and then we can join.

Your force also has green roots?

To a certain extent yes, because some of our members are previous fighters against the Rosia-Montana [gold mining] project  and our environment project is a strong one. But greens are perceived as lefty and we are not.

What about the “Coalition for the Family” in Romania, which obviously seeks to gather the support of the traditional and conservative forces and to alienate liberal and modern forces like yours?

It started as a public initiative trying to impose an unnecessary change to the constitution. In the Romanian constitution, it is said that the family is composed of a free union of spouses. They want to change that into a union between man and woman.

This is completely unnecessary because in the 26 years that we have had our constitution nobody had problems with this definition. Gay marriage is not yet a subject for the public agenda, there is no initiative promoting same-sex marriage.

Maybe in 20, 30 years next generations will take care of this problem, but for now, this is not a priority. The idea came from the older parties, to divert the attention from justice, and not investing in infrastructure, to the traditional values, because it suits them.

Maybe “Coalition for the family” want to put USR in a corner?

I don’t think they could succeed, because I’m quite confident in that part of Romanian society which is open to European values, to European open market, to private initiative.

Everybody really wants a better Romania. There is a line in the Romanian protests “we want a Romania like outside”, but it’s about a Western outside, not as Russia, or Hungary or Poland these days.

So we clearly state: the priority of us is the infrastructure, the functioning justice system, these are the priorities for Romania, and Save Romania Union is doing this.